Superheroes have taken over the film industry. It seems like every major film studio has a superhero franchise. In the past few weeks, both Marvel and DC have announced their extensive slate of future films, which will have actors on wires and in tights into the 2020s. Even Netflix and Playstation have jumped on the bandwagon to bring costume characters to life. That’s where Birdman is different. It takes off the mask and focuses an actor who plays one of these iconic characters.
Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, an aging actor best known for playing the superhero, Birdman. He still has fans the world over but is looking for validation and wants to be seen as more than just a man in a rubber suit. He’s haunted by his past. Really, Birdman speaks to him. Riggan thinks that Broadway is a way to escape his superhero past and has adapted a play by his childhood idol to show the world that he’s still relevant.
Keaton owns the role and creates the perfect entry point to a discussion of celebrity and artistic merit. Even after all this time, you can’t look at him without seeing Batman, and when Riggan speaks about being stuck in the shadow of his character, one wonders how much art imitates life. The film plays with the idea of celebrity culture, blockbuster entertainment, and even the role of critics in the entertainment industry. While casting his show, Riggan lists some of today’s top talent—Woody Harrelson, Michael Fassbender, Robert Downey Jr.—each with their own franchise associations, but instead, hires a Broadway talent, Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), who looks down his nose at Hollywood’s corruption of art.
Surprisingly, the film doesn’t condemn the current cultural landscape, but instead ask the audience to think about it. The loud, brash, and sometimes vulgar voice of Birdman urges Riggan to accept who he is (or was). Only after doing so does Riggan receive accolades from the artistic community, but he also literally cuts off his nose to spite his face. Shiner may give a good performance but his process is extreme and off-putting. His real life is a mess and he knows it. The film doesn’t glorify Broadway over Hollywood or vice versa, but shows how they intersect. The same is true for the actors playing these roles. Keaton maybe the most well known superhero in the cast but he isn’t the only one. Norton played the Hulk pre-Mark Ruffalo and Emma Stone just ended her tenure as Gwen Stacy in this summer’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2.
Birdman is not for everyone. Its dark humour, stylized camera work, and jarring special effects take some getting used to. Still, the ideas, performances, and sheer uniqueness of this film get my vote. I can’t help it. Michael Keaton in a rubber suit makes me smile, no matter what the movie was trying to say.